Listening to Potty Mouth’s new album, SNAFU, I’m reminded of that “Treehouse of Horror” episode of The Simpsons with Bart’s evil twin, Hugo, who is determined to be “too crazy for boys town” and “too much of a boy for crazy town.” In the last few years, the Massachusetts trio of Ally Einbinder, Victoria Mandanas, and Abby Weems have found themselves in an analogous predicament: they’re too pop for punk town and too punk for pop town.
This is their first full-length album since 2013’s Hellbent and first non-single release since 2015’s excellent self-titled EP, which raises some questions — with all due respect to the band’s music, it’s not like they’re in the studio laboring over a follow-up to Loveless here. In interviews now (and in tweets and song lyrics), they’ve discussed being courted by a major label, who burdened them with endless comparisons and expectations that left the band tangled in bureaucratic red tape without a sense of direction. Eventually, they parted ways with the major, and so now SNAFU finally surfaces on a friend’s label with not much PR or “momentum.”
For a band with such a faithful 90s aesthetic, it’s fitting that even the process of making the album sounds like something straight from 1994, with the scrappy indie band struggling between major label ambitions and staying true to themselves. While it was a winding road to get there, I’m glad they chose the latter. None of that self-doubt and struggle is heard in the sound of SNAFU, which brims with confidence and is the product of a band who now knows exactly who they are. It barrages the listener with one impossibly catchy chorus after another and its sugary rock sound is reminiscent of the best parts of The Go-Go’s and Veruca Salt. It might be my favorite pop album since Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION, and it makes me think the people who work for that major label have no idea what they’re doing — though, of course, I would never suggest that anyone working in the music industry is less than competent.
I’ve mentioned this before, but writing about music inevitably warps how you think about it, and sometimes I get into a mindset where I feel like any “great” album needs to come with like, a thesis statement and a bunch of cooked-in narrative. After all, you can’t just write “this has good songs that sound good” and expect anyone to care. Sometimes I think artists have internalized this from writers, too, and some seem almost afraid of writing songs that are too poppy or too frivolous.
So there is a gutsiness in how SNAFU totally owns its status as an enjoyable pop album. It doesn’t bury its massive hooks under a bunch of lo-fi gimmickry in an effort to seem hip. It doesn’t have overly complex lyrics that might distract from the songwriting. It hits that perfect sweet spot where the songs are so well-crafted but never sound like they’re trying too hard. It may not challenge listeners much or break new musical ground, but there is an appealing self-assuredness to these songs — the album sounds like a band being who they want to be instead of what others expect them to be.
That theme is explicitly stated on a couple of the songs that I have been listening to repeatedly over the last weekend. “Smash Hit” (initially released as a single in 2016) kisses off that major label with a chorus that is a list of meaningless adjectives that you can just imagine one of those record label guys breathlessly telling to the band as if he is providing them with the best career advice of all time. “Plastic Paradise” is a more general commentary on the fakeness of shopping advertisements that burden everyone with societal expectations; listening to it is about the closest anyone can get to time traveling to the mid-90s. Another highlight, “Fencewalker,” is slightly more contemporary, with some critical and relevant lyrics about people who don’t engage with the world around them. It was written with Gina Schock of The Go-Go’s, just in case Potty Mouth’s intentions on this album weren’t already clear.
While it lacks the edge that most associate with the genre, I think SNAFU is in the true original spirit of punk. It provides a blast of simplicity in a context where a lot of artists are trying to out-think each other and push the limits of complexity, sometimes to self-aggrandizing degrees. In that sense, it’s a really smart album in addition to being impossible to stop listening to.